So you have just completed your Mountain Navigation Course with Original Outdoors…?

…what should you do next?

This blog post is primarily aimed at those who have just attended one of our Level 2 (Mountain) Navigation courses, either on a public course or as a private client. That doesn’t mean that the information below is ONLY of relevance to those who have just visited us in North Wales, but that is the intended audience.

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mountain navigation course snowdonia

Getting out Again

I am in the lucky position where I not only get to earn a living from teaching navigation – I get to regularly go out and practice all of the essential skills. Navigation is a PERISHABLE SKILL and if you don’t use it, you will lose it. We can only fit so much content into the course, and some of the more complex skills will take time to fully get to grips with. Below are some exercises that you can try out at home – even if you live far from the mountains.

Pacing Squares

Find an open patch of level ground (a public playing field is ideal) and stand at one corner, facing away from the corner. Place a £1 coin on the ground and then find a magnetic bearing that runs down one side of the playing field. Once you have set the bearing, walk 100m (using the double-pacing you calculated on the course) and then stop. Turn 90° to either the left or right (whichever way takes you out into open space) and fix another bearing. Walk 100m, turn 90° again and repeat. After 4 x 100m ‘legs’ you should find yourself standing over your £1 coin. If you are not standing there then you now how a financial incentive to become very accurate with your bearings and pacing!

Calibrate Timing

Go for a walk that starts off on the flat, then has an ascent of some type (one that you can measure both horizontally and vertically). Work out your average pace in minutes per kilometre for a measured horizontal distance of somewhere between 500m-1000m. This is almost certainly going to be somewhere between 10 min/km and 15min/km for a flat walk. Try to walk as naturally as you can and don’t rush.
Once you reach the start of an uphill section you will need to get the map out, measure both the horizontal (map) distance and the expected ascent (count contours) between where you are now and somewhere that is easily recognised when you get there (a path junction or similar). Walk the ascent as naturally as you can, and measure your time. You should then be able to calculate how much longer it took you to walk uphill than the same flat distance would have taken. For example – if you are walking at 12min/km on the flat, and a climb that covers 500m of horizontal distance and ascends 70m and it takes you 9 minutes 30 seconds to get to your finish point then it has taken you an extra 30 seconds to climb every 10m of ascent.

E.G: 500m horizontal distance = 6 minutes at 12min/km
An extra 3 minutes 30 seconds to climb 70m of vertical ascent = 30 seconds for every 10m of vertical ascent 

Navigate a Familiar Path

Take the relevant 1:25,000 Ordnance Survey map out to somewhere that is familiar to you – somewhere you can walk a linear or circular route of at least 2km. Even though the terrain is familiar to you – use the map as if you were carefully navigating. Ask yourself testing questions – “how many fencelines will you pass on your left before you reach the next road?”, 2what is that building on the other side of the river?”, “how much ascent/descent is on this route?”. You can discover a lot about your local area this way, but it will also make you much more comfortable with using the map key, paying attention to identifiable features you may pass and even spotting map errors or outdated markings.

Tabletop Adventure

Okay, I’m not saying that a cup of tea/coffee/bovril and a biscuit is compulsory for this exercise, but it’s a good start.
Grab a map for somewhere hilly and interesting (ideally somewhere you have never visited) and start plotting some routes. Find a parking place on a roadside or in a valley and then plot a circular walk. Give yourself a limit, such as:

  • “Must be able to complete in 8hrs”
  • “Must include at least 800m of ascent”
  • “Must be more than 10km, but less than 15km”

It can be quite good fun, and may inspire you to go out and try a few of the routes you have plotted. More importantly it will get you used to checking things like Contour Interval, measuring distance and estimating the time it will take to complete a route.

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beginner navigation training

Test Yourself, Test Each Other

If you have attended a course focusing on mountain navigation then you are probably planning to go out and USE those skills in the mountains. This, of course, is something that Original Outdoors wholeheartedly endorses.
The thing is – unless you actually put some real effort into it then it’s quite difficult sometimes to find a need to bring the compass out and navigate to a higher standard than simple contour/map interpretation. In order to prevent skillfade and losing your edge you will need to test yourself a little.

The exercises below can be done solo, but also work well if shared with someone else who is interested in improving their navigation skills and is happy to be given simple ‘tasks’ to complete.

Point to Point

Once you find yourself at a feature that you can positively identify on a map (a ‘Green’ location) you can give yourself a new destination. When I worked with you on the course I would look for a feature that is prominent in the landscape (but could be easily missed) and ask you to ‘take me HERE‘. Now you are on your own/away from an instructor you can simply repeat this process – pick a feature less than 1.5km away from where you currently stand, and then work out:

  • A safe, sensible route to that destination
  • how far that route is, i.e. how far will you walk
  • how much ascent or descent is there between your point of departure and your destination
  • how long it will take you get there, i.e. estimate what the time will be when you get there

On any navigation assessment those will be the kind of questions I will ask a student. If you are honest with yourself (don’t cheat) and you are happy to work through any errors that might develop then you can refresh and improve your skills through repetition and repeatedly hitting the point of failure.

Imaginary Emergencies

This can done at any point along a walk through the mountains (or indeed, anywhere else) and will help focus the mind when it has drifted away to thoughts of stunning views, tired feet or an empty belly. You grab the map and say to yourself something along the lines of “what if I needed to get back down to civilisation quickly – what would I do, where would I go?“. Then look across the immediate area on the map and see what your ‘Escape Route’ would be. It might just be to reverse the route you have done, or even to continue onwards on the same path. It might however be to follow a ridge down the hill until you hit a broad valley and follow it down to the nearest road. Whatever route you choose make sure it is safe and ‘viable’, i.e. not straight over a cliff or through 74 river crossings.

The Next Course?

If you have just completed the Level 2 Mountain Navigation course then the next step is the Level 3 Advanced Navigation course – which involves an assessment day with an external examiner. There are also a few skill-specific workshops, such as the Night Navigation course or the Contour Map Workshop listed below. We also have a course on NAtural Navigation, where you learn to navigate in a very different way – using the shape of trees, the movement of the sun and stars and even the wind to navigate across a landscape.

Offline Learning – the books we recommend

Some people prefer to learn from a text, or at least have an offline resource they can quickly refer to if they wish to look something up quickly. Below are links out to the books we recommend for learning more about mountain navigation.

Practice beats theory (most of the time)

Mountain navigation is a practical skill, and the very best advice I can give you is to try and get out there and use those skills as soon as you can – even if it’s just for 30 minutes in the local park. You might get some funny looks as you stride around with a compass in hand, but these are complex skills and you will need time to practice and go through them again and again. Be honest with yourself, don’t worry if you make an error and focus on solving problems rather than being perfect.

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